Hayward makes busy debut as Samuel plays safe

After the swirl of transfer rumour and speculation, the Mail and Observer‘s two big signings have made their debuts, as STEVEN DOWNES reports

It has taken almost six months to unravel the nexus of contractual obligations, but the autumn merry-go-round of chief sports writers has this week reached its fruition, with the appearances of Paul Hayward and Martin Samuel – first and second in the SJA’s 2007 Sports Writer of the Year award – in the pages of their new papers.

The weight of expectation is immense – if only among fellow journalists, while the general newspaper-reading public is left nonplussed by it all. How disappointed must so many Daily Mail readers have been during the first few days of this year to discover that the “big transfer news” promised was today’s columns by Samuel, and not an exclusive that Cristiano Ronaldo was to move to Juventus (to be closer to the Ferrari repairman, naturally).

Certainly, if their new picture bylines are anything to judge by, Samuel has had the better of his move from The Times to the Mail. He looks far happier than Hayward, who strikes a pose atop his new employers’ Sunday’s news front page and the front and back page of their sports section like an understudy for Richard Wilson in One Foot in the Grave.

And how busy the Obs have kept Hayward in the past week, too: if Hayward is really to work across all three platforms at the Guardian group, his output is going to be truly prolific. Yesterday there was the back-page opinion piece (“brilliant”, according to the paper’s own puffery), a commentary from Arsenal’s workmanlike win over Bolton, and a cosy interview with Sir Bobby Charlton.

By comparison, Samuel today had it easy – one (full tabloid page and, naturally, “brilliant”, according to the Mail) column and an obit on Chelsea’s Premier League title aspirations from Old Trafford.

Over the next week, we will finally get a clear idea what the Mail is getting from the three-time SJA Sports Writer of the Year. The speculation has been that Samuel’s midweek column – the slot once occupied by Ian Wooldridge and, more recently, by Hayward – is to be a double-page spread, essayed over a single topic. And as if the rumoured £400,000 salary is not enough, Samuel is to get the ultimate, patronising sop to the sports hack who “has something important to say”, with a regular column in the paper’s op-ed section. Good grief, we’ll be having the likes of Piers Morgan or Rod Liddle pontificating in the sports pages next.

How the Guardian group uses Hayward could be more intriguing, since the appointment may set the trend for the future, with his output integrated through the daily and Sunday papers and their widely admired website, although not everything has been finalised yet: today, the Guardian website is describing Hayward as the chief sports writer of the Observer, with only a football podcast contribution to come in midweek.

Hayward may provide a breadth of coverage in his weekly commentary that the paper has only had recently whenever Kevin Mitchell has had that opportunity. What I, for one, have always enjoyed about the Obs’s sports section under sports editor Brian Oliver is its unpredictability and its discipline in not being taken over entirely by football.

Thus Hayward’s column this week gave his Weller-inspired (that’s Paul, rather than Sam) overview of the Pietersen-Moores farce, and tipped Andy Murray to win a slam this year, as well as ripping in to the makers of the latest Paul Gascoigne TV documentary.

There may yet be casualties as a consequence of the new signings, however. Charlie Sale’s diary column was missing from today’s Mail, presumably for space reasons to accommodate Samuel. At the Observer, Will Buckley – a sometime occupier of the back page column – has gone from staff to freelance contributor, while how Hayward’s contributions are married with those of Richard Williams and Mitchell is yet to be resolved – the loss of either would represent another reduction in the variety of sports coverage offered by our national newspapers.

In today’s Mail’s 19-page sports section, amid the 14 pages of football coverage, Samuel’s first column’s main thrust was … football. The real disappointment may be that, costing something like three quid per word, Samuel’s first £20-worth for the Mail is: “The most overworn statement of recent weeks…” So nothing new and original on offer here, then?

Well, Samuel being Samuel, not exactly, as his column shrewdly gainsays all those who are predicting financial catastrophe for Premier League football clubs in the economic recession.

And perhaps mindful of the speculation surrounding his own salary at a time of staff cuts and reduced payments to other colleagues in our industry, this week’s text from the gospel of Samuel was on overpaid footballers. Was there some sort of message to his new employers when Samuel writes: “If Roman Abramovich needs to cut costs in times of recession and does not think Ballack is value for money, he can let him go in June and it will cost him… Nothing.”?

Samuel’s first column also offered his two-penn’orth (at 2009 values, of course) on the England captaincy and a very interesting side bar on how ambulance-chasing lawyers have moved into kids’ sport. But the bulk of his page was on football, and more than enough seemed to focus on that old Samuel obsession, West Ham.

That ought not be too surprising, coming from a journalist whose stock-in-trade is football, and for the soccer-centric Mail, it is undoubtedly what they want. But in his new brief as chief sports writer, rather than the football correspondent he was at The Times, Samuel’s reach in to other sports and other formats – will he, for instance, file in-depth interview pieces? – will be interesting to watch.

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